A Force To Be Reckoned With
By Jenny Darmody
It’s nearly Christmas, it’s nearly exam time and it’s nearly the end of semester one. But it’s also time for the cold winter weather to peak. How could we forget what this time of year brought us in the past, with the last couple of years producing the coldest weather for almost 50 years? In some areas of the country, the temperature dropped to a shocking -17.5 degrees last December.
Liam Keegan, Head of Climatology and Observations in Met Eireann, says that predicting what this winter has in store for us is impossible.
“I know the media has been full in the last couple of months with all sorts of stuff… I don’t know where that’s coming from. It certainly isn’t coming from us,” he says.
“Seasonal forecasting in this part of the world – it really just can’t be done. There are people with theories… about the relationship between solar activity and cold winters in North-Western Europe,” he continues, although he says that this theory has not been proven.
Unfortunately for us, theories that enable us to predict weather beyond five to seven days are vague at best, and the further into the future a forecast goes, it seems the more likely it is to be wrong. Keegan says “we have no clue” about the coming winter.
“It boils down to modelling the atmosphere and how well you can do it and how far in advance you can do that,” he says.
Keegan explains that occasionally other organisations might do 30-day forecasts – including when Britain predicted a “barbeque summer” which turned out to be one of the worst summers in history.
“In fairness to them… they were quoting something like a two in three success rate… that‘s not that great,” he says.
It’s one thing when the sun that was forecasted for the summer doesn’t arrive, but it’s a whole other problem when some of the most extreme weather Ireland has ever seen hits us, sometimes without warning.
Sadly, the extreme weather we have faced in the past few years has not just posed an inconvenience, but has created some tragic results. In December 2010, five people died in the first week of December just as the big freeze got under way. The icy paths and the cold air claimed the lives of four elderly people, while a 28-year-old man tragically lost his life due to the icy roads.
“The last two winters really were severe,” says Keegan. He explains that we simply don’t have the life experience to deal with such extraordinary weather. He says, “that sort of weather is always going to catch people because it‘s just not the norm.”
In some ways, the plummeting temperature, the compacted snow and the glass-like roads might seem much more severe and dangerous – given that flooding as seen in October, only lasts a few days. However, flooding is very quick and sudden. It is very easy to get stuck somewhere unprepared for such weather when it arrives.
“Flooding is quite possible in the summer, [and] it’s quite possible in the winter,” says Keegan.
He believes this makes them far more unpredictable – which can add to the danger they pose. Floods are fast and furious, and with so many people underestimating the sheer power of water, it’s very easy for floods to put up just as much of a fight as snow.
The October floods also proved fatal for two people. A 24-year-old off-duty Garda, Ciaran Jones, was swept away in the floods while trying to help people through the flooded area. Elsewhere, a nurse drowned in her basement flat when it flooded. These deaths are horrific and highlight how dangerous weather can be in this country – especially when it is impossible to predict what might be on its way.
As we head into December now, we will still have plenty of outdoor trips to make to college, work and for Christmas shopping. Are there preparations we can make to save us from getting sick, sore or stranded?
“Certainly in the recent past there‘s been a lot of talk on preparations for [a big freeze],” says Keegan. “There is an effort this year to improve public awareness.”
The Office of Emergency Planning has released a “Be Winter-Ready” booklet, which anyone can download for free from winterready.ie. The booklet provides all the information the public need to prepare for any winter weather they may have to overcome.
The Home Section covers everything from water shortages to preventing falls. The booklet also covers topics such as clearing snow, flooding, school closures and road safety. It also has contact information for public transport nationwide, the HSE and all the local authorities.
Weather is extremely dangerous in all forms. While we can experience incredibly severe variations, even a slightly wet road or a barely icy footpath can cause a severe and sometimes fatal injury.
With that in mind, we have witnessed some of the weather record breakers in the past few years, with the coldest winter on record last year and the most rainfall over a four-hour period in almost 60 years.
Our weather is extremely unpredictable and there’s no telling what will come in December, with Met Eireann unable to give forecasts beyond 10 days. But we can all be prepared for all types of bad weather if we know what we might have to face, and the winter-ready booklet can help immensely with that.
The key is preparation. Always have a decent supply of water and non-perishable foods, have warm clothes ready, as well as wellies if a flood threatens your area. Bags of sand and salt are good for reducing the danger on your own path and driveway. Above all, it is essential that you are prepared for the worst, because no matter what, a severe form of any weather will feel like the worst.
“The worst weather is the weather that catches you as an individual,” says Keegan. “It’s a bit like what’s the worst sort of pain you can have – the answer often is the pain you’ve got at the moment.”